A chorus of boos rained down on Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston when she announced the city’s new indoor COVID-19 vaccination policy, which will require proof of vaccination for indoor dining, fitness centers, and entertainment venues beginning Jan. 15. On Monday, the outdoor swearing-in ceremony for Boston City Council members was punctuated by similar protests against the policy, as well as against the indoor mask mandate.
As leaders of the hospitals and health systems caring for the majority of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in Eastern Massachusetts, we, and our organizations’ more than 139,000 health care workers, are listening. This is what we hear.
We hear booing for our collective best chance at limiting serious illness and death as the fast-spreading Omicron variant rips through our community. Our hospitals are caring for the highest numbers of COVID-positive patients since the early days of the virus. And who are the vast majority of those hospitalized with serious illness? The unvaccinated.
We hear shouting at the immunocompromised and elderly who have been vaccinated and boosted, wear masks when they venture out for necessities, and have isolated themselves from family and friends for far too long, yet are still at risk.
We hear disdain for every individual who is waiting at home, wondering if what they are feeling could be a sign of a heart attack or stroke but worries about the long wait in the emergency department and hesitates to seek care.
We hear disregard for our state’s youngest residents, who are too young to be vaccinated, and school-age children, who may well find themselves once again staring at computer screens for remote learning if the Omicron surge shutters schools and community programs. We hear indifference to their educational and emotional well-being.
At every turn over the last 22 months, our extraordinary caregivers and staff have put everything on the line for our patients — both vaccinated and unvaccinated — and the communities we serve. They have discovered and innovated so we could diagnose, prevent, and treat COVID-19 more effectively. Our teams have collaborated with cities, towns, and the state to expand access to testing and vaccines, share important public health information, and limit avoidable community spread of the virus. They have sought to ensure that our most vulnerable communities and essential workers are not left behind.
Those of us in health care have done our part — and more. But we can’t do it alone. Public health requires, well, the public to do their part. As much as we believe in the power of individual choice, there are times that require individual action for the common good. This is one of those times, and the public can take actions that are simple (even if they aren’t easy) and effective.
This is a unique moment in health care. We have unprecedented amounts of data and the capacity to analyze and act at speeds that were previously unimaginable. We have been able to quickly understand and quantify the positive impact of vaccines and understand how and when masks are most effective. We are not asking for action based on belief but on science and data.
Yet we hear a common refrain: If Omicron is less dangerous and everyone is getting it anyway, why even bother being vaccinated? The answer is clear. We should all bother, because there is a vast difference between being vaccinated and not when it comes to both individual and community health.
If you’re vaccinated (and boosted, if you’re eligible), you’re far less likely to get severely ill or die if you do get a breakthrough case. The large majority of COVID-positive patients in our hospitals — including in our ICUs — are unvaccinated. Even with Massachusetts’ high vaccination rate, the current surge in hospitalizations is serious enough that, with strong support from Governor Charlie Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, we halted elective procedures so that we have adequate capacity to care for those with urgent health issues, including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and serious injuries.
Vaccines work, and Wu is right to take steps to encourage Boston’s residents, visitors, and employees to get vaccinated to participate in activities safely. We encourage others in positions of leadership to do the same: large employers to require vaccines for their employees, as we have, and other municipalities to consider similar policies, and major entertainment, cultural, and other venues to require vaccination.
We are only asking of you what we are asking of ourselves — and what you can expect of the people taking care of you. Wear a mask. For those who haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated. For those who have been vaccinated, get a booster if you’re eligible. We are here for you and your families, whether you have been vaccinated or not. We will do our part; we ask that you do yours.
Because we’re all in this together.
Dr. Kevin Tabb is president and CEO of Beth Israel Lahey Health. Kate Walsh is president and CEO of Boston Medical Center. Dr. Anne Klibanski is president and CEO of Mass General Brigham. Michael Dandorph is president and CEO of Wellforce.